Dog Bite Laws California

Dog bite laws as they apply to the state of California

California dog bite laws on the macro level say that the owner of a dog that bites someone is strictly liable for any injuries that occur regardless of the dog’s biting history.

This means the state of California is one of the states with “strict liability” dog bite laws.

On a micro level, the questions victims and dog owners may have, include, can I get punitive damages for a dog bite in California?  What happens if my dog bites another dog?  And how is strict liability different from the one-bite rule?

In general, strict liability is different from the one-bite rule in that if a victim sues the dog owner, he or she does not have to prove that the owner knew or should have known of the dog’s vicious propensities.  Meaning, lack of knowledge of your dog’s vicious inclinations is not a valid defense. 

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California Dog Bite strict liability laws

Under California’s strict liability laws, the owner of a dog that bites someone is legally answerable for an injury even if he/she was not at fault or negligent.  These laws target manufacturers or distributors that sell defective products and domestic animal owners.

Provocation is maybe the most effective defense you have when your dog or other animal injures someone because what the victim must do is prove that the dog attacked and that his/her injury resulted from the dog’s actions.  In such a situation, the owner may argue that the injury was the result of the victim’s actions, thus, shift liability.  For example, if your dog attacks someone that was trespassing on your land/property or if the person was there intending to conduct criminal activity, and you can prove that.  Then state law will not hold the owner liable.

It is also worth noting that state law does not clearly define what constitutes provocation in California.  So, consult with a personal injury attorney in your area.

What to remember:

  • The dog owner is liable regardless of his/her efforts to take reasonable precautions to prevent an attack.
  • The victim does not have to prove guilt or show fault to claim compensation.
  • The victim has two years, starting from the date of the bite/injury to file a personal injury claim according to California Code of Civil Procedure Section 340.
  • If the owner warned the victim, but the victim ignored said warning resulting in injuries, the law will not hold the owner liable.
  • If the owner knew of the dog’s vicious propensities.  Cal Penal Code 399, says that if death occurs the owner faces felony charges or misdemeanor charges if the bite causes serious injury.
  • The owner may also argue that the victim voluntarily took the risk of injury.

Who is liable for a dog bite?

California Civil Code Section 3342 says that the owner of a dog is liable if:

  1. the attack occurred while the victim was lawfully on private property (including the owner’s property) or while on public property.
  2. The damages resulted from a dog bite.

An excerpt from the code states that:

A person is lawfully upon the private property of such owner within the meaning of this section when he is on such property in the performance of any duty imposed upon him by the laws of this state or by the laws or postal regulations of the United States, or when he is on such property upon the invitation, express or implied, of the owner”.

Section (b) of the code states: “Nothing in this section shall authorize the bringing of an action pursuant to subdivision (a) against any governmental agency using a dog in military or police work if the bite or bites occurred while the dog was defending itself from an annoying, harassing, or provoking act, or assisting an employee of the agency”.

What Laws Protect Dog Bite Victims In California

California’s Negligence Rules

The state of California defines negligence as one’s failure to use reasonable care to prevent harm to others or oneself.  What that means is if a dog owner fails to act reasonably resulting in the victim’s injury or chooses not to do what a reasonable person would do in a similar situation.  Then the victim may file a negligence claim against the owner.

What to remember

  • California practices the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur, which allows the judge to presume negligence if the victim can prove the bite resulted from the defendant’s acts.
  • The dog owner may defend against negligence charges by proving that he/she acted reasonably.  Or that the victim’s negligence or provocation caused the attack.
  • To prove negligence, the victim must show the court (1) the dog owner had a duty towards the victim.  (2) the dog owner acted negligently.  (3) the owner’s actions were the cause of the injury.  (4) injuries suffered, such as lost wages, pain, and suffering, and so on.

It is important to note that California Civil Code-CIV 1714, says:

” Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person, except so far as the latter has, willfully or by want of ordinary care, brought the injury upon himself or herself.”

Contributory versus comparative negligence

Comparative negligence refers to a scenario where the victim is partially responsible or at fault for his/her injuries.  Typically, what happens is the victim may recover partial damages.

This means if the dog owner can prove that the victim was partially responsible for the injury, then the victim may only recover partial damages.  For example, if you are 30% responsible or at fault for the bite, then the owner is only liable to pay 30% of the damages.

Remember, California is a “comparative negligence state.” Thus, the rules of contributory negligence do not apply.  Also, the victim may recover compensation even if he or she is 99% responsible for the attack.

How to file a personal injury claim after a dog bite in California

Dog bite victims may file a dog bite lawsuit and recover medical expenses, property damage, pain, and suffering, or if the victim did not survive.  His/her family may file a wrongful death claim.

It is also worth noting that if the injury did not result from a dog bite, like say, the dog knocked over or tripped the victim.  Then the victim may file a personal injury lawsuit.

What to remember:

  • The “Discovery of Harm” rule can change the personal injury filing deadline (statute of limitations is 2 years).
  • Before filing a lawsuit, you may negotiate with the dog owner or his/her insurer.
  • To file a lawsuit, you must file a written document at a local court that includes your claim and how much compensation you seek.
  • The judge decides how much you receive, not you.

On the other hand, to prove a negligence claim.  You must show that the dog owner was negligent, the victim was harmed, and that negligence was a substantial factor in causing the victim’s harm.

What dog breeds are banned in California?

Statute 31602, California dog bite laws, defines a dangerous dog as:

  • “Any dog which, when unprovoked, on two separate occasions within the prior 36-month period, engages in any behavior that requires a defensive action by any person to prevent bodily injury when the person and the dog are off the property of the owner or keeper of the dog.”
  • “Any dog which, when unprovoked, bites a person causing a less severe injury than as defined in Section 31604.” 
  • “Any dog which, when unprovoked, on two separate occasions within the prior 36-month period, has killed, seriously bitten, inflicted injury, or otherwise caused injury attacking a domestic animal off the property of the owner or keeper of the dog”.

That said, California has breed-specific dangerous dog rules, meaning if you are the owner of an American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire terrier, or Staffordshire bull terriers, then California dog bite laws require you to fence your yard to protect the public.  I.e., you must keep a dangerous dog indoors or in a confined yard.

What to remember:

  • Local animal control may destroy a dangerous dog if it poses a danger to the public.
  • State law may require you to spay or neuter a dangerous dog.
  • The owner may face felony criminal charges if he or she fails to restrain the dog or allows it to roam free.
  • Any violation of California’s dangerous dog laws may earn the owner a $500 fine.
  • You must license and vaccinate a dangerous dog.
  • You must notify animal control if a dangerous dog dies, if you sell it, or if you transfer/remove the dog from your county or city.

What happens if a dog bites a trespasser?

California civil code 3342 does not protect trespassers nor does it place liability on the dog owner.

To be safe, we recommend that you place a NO TRESPASS sign on your property.  Doing that will make it very difficult for the victim to prove owner negligence because the bite or injury would have occurred whilst the victim was in the midst of conducting criminal activity (trespassing).

One way to protect yourself from liability if you own a dangerous dog is by investing in homeowner or renter’s insurance that covers dog bite liability.

Overall, if you are the victim of a dog bite, it is important to contact a dog bite defense attorney to verify your options.  And if you are the dog owner, you should take measures to ensure that your dog is confined properly.  Thus, fence your yard, put up a no-trespass sign, and be careful who you let near or around your dog.

Remember, in California trespassing is both a criminal and civil offense, meaning, it is one of the best defenses dog owners have.  Plus, the owner may sue the victim for emotional distress, loss of property value, and so on.

California dog bite laws are not easy to navigate on your own. We recommend that you work with a defense attorney in your area.

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